A whirlwind of thoughts and observations in the final week of the regular season as state tournament time is nearly here for Class 3A and 4A schools …
➤ Both Bolingbrook and Geneva fell from the ranks of the unbeaten this past weekend. Can Fremd close things out and head into March with a perfect record? It won’t be easy as the Vikings must go on the road and face a talented Prospect team Wednesday night in the Mid-Suburban League championship game.
But it’s a bit crazy to think Fremd could be the first regular season unbeaten team since …. Fremd in 2013-14.
➤How about a Prospect-Fremd pick?
From the outside looking in you wonder what a loss for Fremd would do at this point in season. Would it alleviate some pressure not having to go into March unbeaten? Does a loss this late, to a sectional foe, ding the confidence?
Prospect has won 13 straight, will be playing at home and has a wrecking-ball in Frankie Mack, whose shooting range is deep and accurate. But that Fremd defense, patience and overall chemistry and cohesion gets it done tonight. But it’s going to be a barnburner and no surprise if Fremd falls.
We’ll go Fremd 47, Prospect 45.
➤ I know my Mr. Basketball vote. Edwardsville’s Mark Smith has earned it while putting up big numbers for a 24-1 team with state title aspirations.
But the Chicago area Player of the Year? Sorting that out is a different story.
This past week, with high-profile games and championships being decided, there were ample opportunities for several of the frontrunners to pull ahead of the pack. It didn’t happen. Whether it was a lackluster performance here or their team falling short there in a big game, many of the big-named players simply didn’t enhance their POY résumé.
➤ It wasn’t more than one hour after the city championship had concluded Sunday night when the phone rang and it was Simeon coach Robert Smith on the other line. There was zero celebratory talk or any time to break down the big win over Morgan Park. The veteran coach was immediately talking regional opponents and thinking about state tournament play.
At that particular time, Smith was unable to get online to find the information he needed regarding possible regional opponents, but he wasn’t going to waste a single minute of preparation time for future regional opponents. He needed a quick answer. Again, all of this just one hour after winning a Chicago Public League championship.
➤ I noted on this week’s “No Shot Clock” podcast the job Nick Irvin has done coaching this particular Morgan Park team. This is the least amount of talent the Mustangs have had in the past five or six years, yet its a team that nearly won a city championship and is one of a handful of favorites to capture a Class 3A state championship in March.
But what Morgan Park continues to do under Irvin is compete and play hard. The cupboard is far from bare, obviously, but it’s that competitiveness and energy that keeps this team playing at the level it does. Irvin has mixed and matched all season until finding the right lineup and rotation that best fits this team.
➤ Speaking of Morgan Park, the added fuel freshman Nimari Burnett provided in the city playoffs, particularly big shots at key moments, is a huge plus as Nick Irvin’s team pushes into March. Fenwick’s D.J. Steward has clearly been the most impactful freshman on a ranked team, but the calm play and offensive presence of Burnett over the past couple of weeks has been eye-opening.
➤ Orr is certainly talented enough to win a Class 2A state championship this year, despite coach Lou Adams not having the ideal lead guard most state champions possess. But when watching Orr you can’t help but think ahead to next season. This is a junior-dominated team that will return nearly intact.
➤ A couple of weeks ago I produced a pretty in-depth story on schedule strength and listed the teams in the Chicago area who have played the strongest schedules this season. But what about the other side of things? What about those teams whose schedules fail to seriously test them?
This is the point of the season when it matters, and all I can say is that those teams’ tournament preparation is hampered by its weak schedule, especially if they play in a strong sectional.
➤ Rod Henry-Hayes of Zion-Benton remains one of the most overlooked players in the state, both by casual basketball fans and, more importantly, by college coaches. Henry-Hayes, along with Edwardsville’s Mark Smith, were listed as the Hoops Report’s biggest stock risers over the holiday tournaments in December.
Thankfully, there have been a whole lot more college coaches at the low-Division I and mid-major levels swinging by to watch the Zee-Bees lately –– and they’re intrigued –– but the versatile 6-4 guard still has just one offer.
UW-Milwaukee offered Henry-Hayes, a 6-4 senior who can pass and dribble as Zion-Benton’s point guard and shoots it just well enough. Henry-Hayes has been missed but is among the City/Suburban Hoops Report’s top 25 seniors.
➤ A few weeks ago on the “No Shot Clock” podcast with Michael O’Brien of the Sun-Times, I made a point of saying one incredible basketball streak would be coming to an end this year. And T.F. North’s win over Hillcrest two weekends ago looks like it will put an end to that streak.
Hillcrest is currently riding an incredible 28-year conference win streak. I don’t care what team it is or what conference it plays in, that streak is remarkable when you’re talking nearly three decades straight of conference championships.
➤ Meanwhile, kudos to T.F. North and coach Tim Bankston. The Meteors are now 22-3 and the No. 4 seed in the Thornwood Sectional. T.F. North will need to likely beat unbeaten Hubbard in a regional semi and a tough 24-win Marist team in a regional final just to get a crack at Simeon, where Bankston played in the mid-1980s, in a sectional semifinal.
➤ Aside from unbeaten Fremd, the team riding the longest winning streak in the Chicago area is Naperville North. The Huskies, who haven’t lost since December, have won 15 straight games and head into a season finale Wednesday night at No. 6 Wheaton South. The host Tigers also haven’t lost in 2017, winning 13 consecutive games –– tied with Prospect for the second longest current win streak.
➤ Down in central Illinois, a big season from Taylor Bruninga, a space-the-floor 6-8 senior, has now netted three Missouri Valley Conference offers. Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Loyola have all offered Bruninga, along with a recent offer from Winthrop.
➤ How about the season Brett Czerak is having at Aurora Central? The senior scoring guard is averaging 26 points a game and now has 1,828 career points. He’s helped lead the Chargers to a share of the Metro Suburban Blue and a 20-5 record.
Don’t underestimate the possibilities for this team in a winnable Class 3A sectional at Genoa-Kingston, where Aurora Central, a No. 2 seed in its sub-sectional, will battle Burlington Central, Rochelle and Marengo for a sectional title.
➤ Lost in the shuffle of a loaded 2A Guerin Sectional, where Orr and Uplift are the teams to beat, are Immaculate Conception and Timothy Christian.
IC (20-7) has the regional in its own gym as the Knights beat Guerin Tuesday night in the regional semis. However, the loss of a true small school difference-maker in Austin Reed, who was one of the more overlooked payers in the Chicago area, is a huge blow. Reed is no longer playing for IC.
Timothy Christian has 17 wins as Joey Davidson, a 6-2 senior and three-year starter, became just the 10th player in school history to surpass 1,000 career points earlier this season.
Timothy Christian will face Immaculate Conception in the regional final Friday night.
➤ With the Class 3A and 4A regionals tipping off next week, there will surely be games that will constitute as upsets. But from what I’ve seen this season –– even from some of those teams with only one, two and three losses on the season –– the shocking upset this March shouldn’t seem so shocking.
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